Book club for car designers: book 1

It has been at least 30 years since I first became interested in car design. My childhood obsessions swerved towards cars early, but then learning about how they came to exist was harder. Occasional design articles in Car Magazine helped educate me, and around the same time I wrote a letter to Rover Design – and a wonderful reply came back to teenage me from Roy Axe. There have been countless books published on cars, and there have been biographies written about important figures in the industry, but design and styling was previously very niche. I am lucky to have attracted attention of a publisher who has sent me a car design book to review. I also decided to look into what other books are available on this subject, because there seem to be a growing number especially autobiographies. Roy Axe wrote one, and that’s one book I intend to read for obvious reasons. In 2020 I read a couple of books in this genre, and here I review one of them.

The Crowood Press reached out to me- and asked if I would interested in reviewing their recently published book on Bruno Sacco, former head of the Mercedes Benz Styling Department. The book is called “Bruno Sacco: Leading Mercedes-Benz Design 1975-1999 and is written by a chap called Nik Greene. The book seems well-titled, but I will get back to that. Expectation was for a biography of Bruno Sacco, who is a towering name in vehicle design. Revered for his expert custodial control of one of the most important automotive brands, Sacco oversaw a seminal era of Mercedes design. It is from his era that my preferred Mercedes Benz designs originate. The W124 (class E) and the first generation SLK (R170) are my personal favourites from the definitive automobile brand.

I am apprehensive about writing my first book review, as I am not sure of the correct etiquette, and in the case of this particular book I must be blunt and admit I did not enjoy it. I wanted to get that off my chest right away- and I will add that I didn’t manage to read every word in this book, as it is dry and rather tedious to read. It serves as a hefty and no doubt fact-filled reference book, ideal for a University library shelf (good reference for my day-job) but as an enjoyable read it fails. Perhaps the subject matter does not hold enough personal interest for me, but the real issue I have with a car design book such as this, is when it is written by someone with a lack of knowledge for the car design process. Finding a combination of design know-how and writing skill is rare indeed, so I can cut the publishers slack in this regard. This is, I am afraid, not a book about Mercedes-Benz design, and nor is it a book about Bruno Sacco. Sacco barely features, and a vast majority of the text appears to be reference material on the history of Mercedes Benz engineering achievements. Think Wikipedia in book form, with superb and exclusive photography. Factually correct, but uninspired in prose or storytelling.

The nature of this book is stated in the preface by the author- and in this we can respect his professionalism (clearly an accomplished researcher). Unfortunately he reveals the reason for my feelings on this book, by mentioning personal meetings with the great man Bruno Sacco. It is very pleasant to hear that Sacco was a humble man who credits all his success to team work. This is pleasantly accurate, because no car is ever designed or created alone, and Sacco did not himself “pen” more than perhaps one Mercedes car. The author clearly reveres Sacco, and defers to his request regarding the content of the biography about him. The failings of the book can be explained by quoting the author himself.

The only way I could honour one of the
greatest designers in automotive history was to write his
story through the history of design, honouring the people
he honoured, and showing his talent through his work and
not through his ego.

Nik Greene – author

So this appears to be exactly what Nik did, and the result is as mentioned previously, rather dry. Of 208 pages in this publication, we only start to learn about Sacco on page 130. At last we hear of his life before Mercedes Benz, and things start to feel a lot more like an actual biography. Sadly it is all over by page 138, and we return to detailed history of Sacco’s most personal car design, the C111 Experimental Safety Vehicle Project. This avoidance of anything not-Mercedes related, and anything personal, creates a book which feels corporately sponsored (NOTE: the publishers asked me to make it clear it is NOT sponsored in any way). The vast majority of this book is a fascinating guide to the entire history of vehicle design and engineering, but with the point of view that no other company exists than Mercedes Benz. This final third of the book is where things get messy. Twice we are led though the timeline of Mercedes design- firstly seemingly unrelated to Sacco, then concentrating on Sacco’s time and his guidance. This is a genuinely interesting section of the book, and perhaps the entire publication could’ve been 2/3rds shorter. The stand out aspect of this book are the images and photographs, which often appear to be exclusive archive material, unavailable in any other publication. One photograph showing a young Gorden Wagener talking with Sacco over a small clay model of the CLK coupe design stands out as prophetic. Master training the apprentice. Sacco is shown in casual attire, a cardigan, and with spectacles on (vanity appears to stop him wearing these in any other formal photographs). The last 3 chapters of the book are better, with the final being “Sacco’s Legacy”. Here we also see the mistakes regarding design, with clay model review images being wrongly explained as “exploring different sizes of vehicle” which they were not (all clearly have the same package and dimensions). My favourite fact learned from this book, is something that changes my previously held dislike for the W140 S-Class design. A car I have always felt is too large, and just too arrogant in its design. How can someone as renowned as Sacco have made this mistake? He didn’t. He wanted the entire car to have 100mm lower roofline, but was overruled by engineering. A rare regret that he admitted to.

Overall then- a very comprehensive history of the engineering and design of Mercedes Benz, but rather light on insight into the man named in the title. For a fan of the brand this becomes a must-buy, but for the rest of us, perhaps it’s not as compelling.

How do we conceive our company’s designs today

in the context of our history and current technical

demands and possibilities? We must continue to follow

the three basic principles.

1 A Mercedes must always look like a Mercedes.

2 It should symbolize all the values that are the hallmark

of an authentic Mercedes and that our customers

expect of it.

3 The design should include as much innovation as

possible while at the same time remaining true to the

values of the brand.

It is highly important that both the driver and the

passengers have the clear sensation of being in a

Mercedes once they are seated in any of our cars.

This feeling is induced not only by the design but also

by the finishing, the choice of materials, and even

the tactile impact with interior surfaces. This way, it

is not difficult for customers to establish a relationship

of trust with the marque, especially in terms of

reliability and continuity.

Bruno Sacco

Links to buy: